What does Michael Lofton mean about the legitimacy of attending non-Catholic liturgies?

“It is not licit for the faithful by any manner to assist actively or to have a part in the sacred [rites] of non-Catholics.”

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These notes are offered as a commentary on the extract which we recently published from McHugh and Callan on the question of Communicatio in Sacris, attending non-Catholic ceremonies. I have omitted references to McHugh and Callan, as they are all found in the extract in question.

Mr Michael Lofton recently claimed:

“[O]ne can attend an SSPX mass in some qualified cases (see the Monsignor Perl document we have discussed), as long as they do not formally adhere to the schism. If one formally adheres to the schism of the SSPX, then that is a grave sin. Same applies for an EO [Eastern Orthodox] liturgy, as I’ve stated before. In limited cases, one can attend an EO service, but if they formally adhere to schism, then that is a grave sin.”[1]

Setting aside his accusations of schism against the Society of St Pius X (accusations which I reject), is this general claim about attending non-Catholic rites true? And if so, what are the “limited cases” in which one can attend such liturgies?

In order to provide some answers, and to give an example of the pre-conciliar treatment of the subject, we previously published some relevant sections from McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology.

We must start by observing that Mr Lofton’s statement is quite unclear. This is a standard topic, and – as the extract demonstrated – is treated with clarity in pre-conciliar works of moral theology. There seems no reason to depart from the language and distinctions which they give.

Given the way he discusses the topic in the comment above and elsewhere, it appears as if Mr Lofton has a broader set of cases in view than these moralists and commentators. In this piece, I’d like to consider how his ambiguous comments measure up to such a treatment.

Starting Points

Let’s start with the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Canon 1258

§ 1. It is not licit for the faithful by any manner to assist actively or to have a part in the sacred [rites] of non-Catholics.

§ 2. Passive or merely material presence can be tolerated for the sake of honor or civil office, for grave reason approved by the Bishop in case of doubt, at the funerals, weddings, and similar solemnities of non-Catholics, provided danger of perversion and scandal is absent. Ibid.[2]

Commenting on this matter, in terms which seems to be much more absolute than those of Mr Lofton, McHugh and Callan explain:

964. It is unlawful for Catholics in any way to assist actively at or take part in the worship of non-Catholics (Canon 1258). Such assistance is intrinsically and gravely evil; for […]

(b) if the worship is Catholic in form, but is under the auspices of a non-Catholic body (e.g., Baptism as administered by a Protestant minister, or Mass as celebrated by a schismatical priest), it expresses either faith in a false religious body or rebellion against the true Church.

These moralists consider various exceptions (such as those mentioned in the canon, as well as a few others), and apply the principle of double effect to these exceptions. Part of the principle of double effect is the existence of “a sufficiently grave reason for performing it [viz. the act, of assisting at a non-Catholic ceremony.]” (n. 961a). They also explain the meaning of merely passive assistance – viz., “if one merely assists as a spectator, and not as a worshipper” (n. 962).

It is not always possible to avoid scandal – sometimes scandal is an evil which must be tolerated in the application of the principle of double effect. But this principle, as stated above, pertains to a morally neutral act and a sufficiently grave cause.

Whether and when assisting at such ceremonies is morally neutral – and what might constitute sufficiently grave cause – are the very questions at hand. But Mr Lofton’s comments leaves these and other questions unanswered.

“Formal adherence to schism”?

Neglecting these distinctions, and making the central question whether one “formally adheres to the schism” (or heresy) of a non-Catholic group, suggests a misunderstanding of weightier points which need to be considered.

What exactly does it mean, to Mr Lofton, to “formally adhere to schism“?

His words imply that this formal adherence is a merely internal matter, as he makes no reference to the distinction between passive and active participation, nor to proportionate causes justifying the attendance in question. But these are crucial distinctions, which cannot be omitted, even in a casual discussion of the issue.

As such, we are left with the suggestion that one can attend a non-Catholic liturgy as a worshipper, and carry out the external actions accompanying such attendance, so long as one does not have some internal intention to adhere to schism or heresy, or does have an internal intention not to adhere to such things.

The problem here, as McHugh and Callan state, is that active assistance itself in the worship of non-Catholics, even if the rites themselves are Catholic in origin (as with the Orthodox), “expresses either faith in a false religious body or rebellion against the true Church.” Further, the encyclical Mediator Dei, Pius XII taught:

“The worship [the Church] offers to God, all good and great, is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity […] In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly […] The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.”[3] (emphasis added)

This is not just because of some particular aspect of the liturgical rite itself, which would apply even when schismatics or heretics utilise our rites. It is because, in the words of Fr Berry, religious rites themselves, taken as a whole, “in fact are, outward professions of faith.”[4]

(We should note, however, that this is a question of the profession of faith, and not of a profession of shared theological conclusions, no matter how certain such conclusions may be. Those who err in such matters are not thereby heretics or schismatics, and “their” rites should not be treated in accordance with these principles.)

What about the question of receiving certain sacraments in danger of death? McHugh and Callan clarify how these principles apply to such situations:

“[T]here is no communication in non-Catholic ceremonies in these cases, for the Sacraments belong to the Catholic Church, and for the sake of the dying she authorizes non-Catholic ministers to act as her representatives, provided there is no scandal or danger of perversion.” (n. 970(b))

In any case, receiving the sacraments is very much a background issue here. It should also be obvious from the canons given, and from McHugh and Callan’s text, that the principles here apply not only to schismatic Masses, but also to other services such as Vespers. The question of active assistance at the rites of schismatics does not turn around whether or not one receives sacraments within them.

Sunday Obligation?

McHugh and Callan explicitly reject the idea that even the fulfilment of the Sunday obligation is a sufficient cause, quoting the Holy Office:

“If on Sunday, one is where there is only a schismatical church, one is excused from the obligation of hearing Mass, and may not hear Mass in that church (Holy Office, December 5, 1608; August 7, 1704).” (Emphasis added)

As is clear, the Sunday obligation is not only not a sufficiently grave cause – the Holy Office made clear that attending these rites was forbidden even under these circumstances

Some persons claim that, in the absence of an Eastern Catholic liturgy (or even a liturgy of their own sui juris church), Eastern Catholics are entitled to attend the liturgies of schismatics rather than the Roman Rite. For instance, “Fr Bo and Fr Stephen” (of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton) state in an answer to a question published in December 2020:

“So, there is no sin for a Ukrainian Catholic in attending an Orthodox service, especially when one cannot attend a Ukrainian Catholic service.”[5] (Emphasis added).

But if the Holy Office said it was forbidden to hear Mass offered by schismatics in the absence of a Catholic Mass, it would seem to be even more illegitimate for Eastern Catholics to attend schismatics liturgies when surrounded by Roman Rite Masses.

Such an idea does not appear in McHugh and Callan’s text, or in other standard works – nor has it been possible for us to verify it in any pre-conciliar authority. In fact, what we have found would exclude such an idea in principle.

Canon Law and Divine Law

It may be alleged that the situation has changed since the apparent promulgation of 1983 Code.

Be that as it may, the arguments in McHugh and Callan’s text are primarily based on a) divine law and b) the reality of what happens when a Catholic attends non-Catholic worship. As an example showing that this is how the matter was understood prior to Vatican II, consider the explanation of the Holy Office document given by the canonist William Conway:

“All communicatio in sacris, i.e. participation with non-Catholics in an act of religious worship, is forbidden. This prohibition, of course, being a prohibition of the divine law, is absolute.”[6] (emphasis added)

Although McHugh and Callan cite Canon 1258 of the 1917 Code, this is by no means exclusively a canonical matter in itself. The dispositions of positive law here merely manage and administer the reality of these things – which again, is a matter of divine law. This is true whether such participation is directly against the divine law, as stated by Conway; or indirectly, by virtue of the intrinsic dangers of such activities (as suggested by some such as Cardinal d’Annibale, regarding the same document).

However, in the Holy Office document mentioned above, the question referred not to the sharing of public worship, but the much “lesser” matter of praying of the Our Father in common. According to both the direct and indirect views, the prohibition is rooted in the reality that communicatio in sacris carries the serious and intrinsic dangers of perversion, scandal and indifferentism – which d’Annibale calls “the contagious evil of our age.”[7]

It would be incredible to suggest that canon law can remove these dangers by fiat; and even more incredible to suggest that these dangers have disappeared today.

Those who might wish to claim that these questions can be resolved by reference to the 1983 Code, must a) establish that this prohibition is based not directly on divine law, but merely indirectly on the divine positive law to avoid dangerous occasions of sin, and b) explain how it is that that such occasions are no longer dangerous today.

One would have thought that Mr Lofton would be particularly alive to these concerns, given his own time in heresy and schism. The extent and gravity of this danger is not mitigated by the later reconciliation of individuals – because for every heretic or schismatic that returns to the Church, many others do not.


Canon 2316 contains a stark and disturbing warning:

Can. 2316

Whoever in any manner willingly and knowingly helps in the promulgation of heresy, or who communicates in things divine with heretics against the prescription of Canon 1258, is suspected of heresy.[8]

It may be objected that this canon is irrelevant to groups like the Orthodox because (it is said), they are not heretics, but merely schismatics

First, this is to misunderstand the fact that schism puts one outside the Church as much as heresy.

Second, the Orthodox individually and as the various bodies, and in a completely open way, deny several defined dogmas to be believed with divine and Catholic faith – most notably, the Filioque and papal infallibility. They are also open in their non-acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church’s magisterium, which Cardinal Billot states is “the very notion of heresy.”[8]

Third, even if we were to concede the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Orthodox against all this, and were to treat them merely as schismatics, the canon would still be instructive in an analogical sense.

Nor can the force of these points be evaded by proposing that the Orthodox are merely material heretics or schismatics, rather than formal. This is irrelevant for the reasons discussed above and elsewhere.

Therefore, the relevance and application of this canon stands stands. Attendance at even the Orthodox divine liturgy, outside of the sorts of exceptions explained in Canon 1258 and other such approved commentaries, would seem to make someone “suspect of heresy“.

Even worse, let’s consider Canon 2315:

Canon 2315

One suspected of heresy who, having been warned, does not remove the cause of suspicion is prohibited from legitimate acts; if he is a cleric, moreover, the warning having been repeated without effect, he is suspended from things divine; but if within six months from contracting the penalty, the one suspected of heresy does not completely amend himself, let him be considered as a heretics and liable to the penalties for heretics. (Emphasis added)

Now, we are all well aware that there are almost no canonical warnings being administered these days, but once again, the principle is instructive.

We do not present this information or the above canon in order to accuse anyone in particular as being “suspect of heresy.” The nature of our current situation is almost universal confusion, and no doubt some have attended Orthodox liturgies in good faith, honestly believing that this is a legitimate course of action. We do not seek to judge such persons – merely to present information.

Implications of such “changes in the Church’s practice”

Not everyone will be convinced by the arguments presented. However, the very existence of this debate demonstrates several important things.

First, with reference to individuals: if one “does not find these arguments convincing,” and thinks that it is good for these matters to change, then one is adopting the position of judging the pre-conciliar Church in her doctrine and laws. But we are not the measure of the Church and her tradition – they measure us. And if we reject then, then it is we, rather than they, that are found wanting.

Second, eschewing traditional distinctions and justifying the attendance of schismatic rites under the terms used by Mr Lofton is very dangerous. For example, many have found themselves enchanted by the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy, and attending it has already lead many into schism and heresy, and out of the Church. Again, one would have thought that Mr Lofton would be particularly alive to the dangers here, and it is difficult to understand why one would abandon clearer and more certain distinctions for those less clear and less certain.

Third, it should be obvious that someone who defends a change as legitimate is admitting the existence of the change itself. In this case, this change is a significant rupture in beliefs and laws previously presented as pertaining to divine law.

In other words, theses which were held as mainstream and pertaining to divine law on the eve of the modern situation are now rejected in the place of others. We will make no progress until we recognise this fact.

But if Mr Lofton and other more liberal interpreters of these matters are correct, then it would appear that the Church was seriously wrong before the Council, in a matter pertaining to divine law (whether directly or indirectly). This raises serious ecclesiological questions about the exercise of a sort of “implicit” or “tacit magisterium”, given the apparent commitment of the conciliar regime to such interpretations.

But if pre-conciliar writers approved by the Church – and I welcome any authorities holding alternative views – if these writers, I say, were correct before the Council, then Mr Lofton and the other more liberal interpreters are seriously misleading their followers.

The real question, therefore, is this: If the pre-conciliar Church cannot be trusted in matters of such gravity, then why should we be concerned with whatever else she says? And further, why should we be concerned with what the “post-conciliar church” says?

Such an attitude is the undoing of all magisterial authority and proves too much. One does not prove the legitimacy and indefectibility of the conciliar church by implying the defection of the pre-conciliar Church. It would be better to acknowledge that the current situation is problematic, and to look for solutions which are in line with the faith, rather than to conjure up solutions which cause problems for centuries of the Church’s history.

Some aspects are subject to change (as evident in Martin V’s Ad Evitanda Scandala), but others are not. The matters addressed here were certainly not considered provisional or “merely disciplinary,” but rather the specification and explanation of reality and aspects of divine revelation.

Conclusion and the “hermeneutic of charity”

Avoiding directly addressing these problems appears to be a primary concern for the new breed of conciliar influencers and apologists today. Instead, the method of proceeding is to deny that the pre-conciliar Church really taught the opposite of the current ideas, or to suggest that the traditional understanding was not something definitive.

But this is not a serious way of proceeding. It cannot be justified by terms such as “the hermeneutic of charity,” as if we can, by an act of the will, decide that contradictions can be reconciled. This “hermeneutic of charity,” which Mr Lofton has mentioned at times, is laudable as far as it goes. St Ignatius writes:

“Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity.”[9]

But at some point, the benefit of the doubt, the best presupposition, and even “the hermeneutic of charity” must give way – not to Mr Lofton’s contrary “hermeneutic of suspicion,” but to reality. Persevering in a voluntaristic rejection of reality, especially when souls and the Faith is at risk, is not a duty imposed on us, and it is unworthy of creatures with the God-given gift of reason.

Therefore, it would be most welcome for Mr Lofton and his fellow travellers to clarify: Do they accept the sorts of pre-conciliar explanations as given by McHugh and Callan, particularly that “it is unlawful for Catholics in any way to assist actively at or take part in the worship of non-Catholics. Such assistance is intrinsically and gravely evil” – including on Sundays (n. 964)?

And if they do not accept these explanations, do they recognise that a rupture here would constitute a really significant and multi-faceted ecclesiological problem?

If they do recognise this rupture between pre- and post-conciliar beliefs here, how do they propose to solve it?

If they do not, and if they persist in the denial of what is manifestly so, then it is difficult to continue any meaningful engagement.

Finally, let’s note that Mr Lofton has often complained in his videos that traditional Catholics do not engage with his videos. However, this is the third piece which we have published engaging with Mr Lofton’s ideas since September 2022 – having previously analysed his misrepresentation of arguments about Francis’ legitimacy and the concept of ecclesiastical tradition. It is also unfortunate that he does not respond to substantial engagement, and chooses to refute the weakest arguments or most excessive positions instead of “steel-manning” the arguments of those whom he opposes.

In my opinion, this is not the conduct of someone who really wants engagement.

It should be obvious that this extract and these comments are aimed at Catholics. We intend no offence towards any Eastern Orthodox who might happen to read this, and would expect their opinions to be largely the same towards us. That said, we do beg the Orthodox and others to be reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation.

Further Reading

Does Michael Lofton understand the arguments made in the debate on Francis?

What does Michael Lofton mean by “tradition”?

Is it legitimate for Catholics to assist at non-Catholic liturgies? – McHugh & Callan, 1958


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[1] This was posted as a “Community Post” on Mr Michael Lofton’s YouTube Channel Reason and Theology, and is available here.

[2] The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus, trans. Dr Edward Peters, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001

[3] Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947, n. 47. http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html.

[4] E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 98.

[5] ‘Is it a sin to attend an Orthodox Church?’ Ask a Priest, Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, December 2020, accessed January 2023. https://eeparchy.com/2020/12/04/is-it-a-sin-to-attend-an-orthodox-church/

[6] William Conway, Problems in Canon Law – Classified Replies to Practical Questions, Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1956, p 334.

[7] Cf. Canon E.J. Mahoney, Priests’ Problems, Burns and Oates, London, 1958. Page number inaccessible at present, digital excerpt available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20080801190830/http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/forums/viewtopic.php?p=5883#5883

[8] Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, p 293. Trans. Fr Julian Larrabee.

[9] St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans. Father Elder Mullan, P.J. Kennedy and Sons, New York, 1914, 15.

One thought on “What does Michael Lofton mean about the legitimacy of attending non-Catholic liturgies?

  1. Michael Wilson

    Very well done! Thank you so much Mr. Wright for this excellent article; many of the points you brought up, especially the one of about “undermining the authority of the past magisterium, in order to make the errors of the present one acceptable”, is a very good point.
    Mike W.

    The WM Review:

    Thanks Mike – we always appreciate your encouragement!

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